'Luke Cage' Season 2: TV Review

Thematic richness and narrative sluggishness butt heads.

Marvel and Netflix's collaborations continue to struggle in their second seasons as 'Luke Cage' gets a powerful new villain, but still has a Luke Cage problem.

Some TV shows get better in their second seasons. Some get worse. Obviously there's no hard-and-fast rule.

Still, you can pick out trends, and it's disconcerting that after first seasons that were very well received, both Daredevil and Jessica Jones slipped in their second chapters. A decline for the second installment of Luke Cage cements a trend that should be worrisome for Marvel and for Netflix, especially since some many of the shared brand's issues — intractable insistence on poorly arced, invariably padded 13-episode seasons first among them — remain consistent. There's definitely no feeling of flexibility or lessons learned as what was initially ordered as a contained, four-show build-up to a Defenders miniseries continues to expand inexorably.

The second season of Luke Cage is far from a disaster. It's a step up from other recent Marvel/Netflix shows when it comes to a memorable villain with season-long objectives. It's still a season with wildly fluctuating spikes and valleys in energy. One moment it walks with the same swagger and purpose and ideology that carried the initial seven episodes of the first season, the next moment it slumps into a fallow funk as if saving its energy and budget. There's some suggestion that Luke Cage knows where its biggest problem lies.

At some point midseason, Luke (Mike Colter) and Misty Knight (Simone Missick) are prepared for some wheel-spinning mini-mission or other, a minor adventure nudging the narrative ball up the field, and Luke refers to the one-armed detective as his sidekick.

"Who says you're not my sidekick?" Misty shoots back.

"Me," Luke sneers. "It's my show."

Luke Cage is the hero of Luke Cage, but he's not a character. Luke Cage is a symbol. He's a slo-mo promenade through the heart of Harlem. He's a throbbing bassline, a hooded silhouette, a finger in the eye of police brutality, homogenized gentrification and anybody who would dare contain, condemn or toxify black masculinity. On paper or in a still image or a glowering close-up, Luke Cage is badass, The Man. As the central figure in a TV drama, it's increasingly clear that he's become a gorgeous, righteous bore.

By that standard, the second season of Luke Cage is a 13-episode campaign to rough up its main character, to deepen and darken Luke Cage to a point where he becomes interesting again. This is done primarily with the introduction of a complicated Jamaican villain calling himself "Bushmaster" (Mustafa Shakir), a purveyor of the dark arts with vicious fighting skills that make Luke look slow and sluggish (which he is). Bushmaster carries a multi-generational grudge against Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), who begins the season on the brink of selling off her gun-running empire and going completely legit with stooge-turned-lover Shades (Theo Rossi) by her side.

Bushmaster and Luke have a lot in common, as people say over and over again, and in a different context they might have been allies, as people say over and over again, but in this situation, there's an ethnic war boiling over in Harlem, and that works against Luke's superhero interests. Luke's personal interests are occupied by girlfriend Claire (eternally underused Rosario Dawson) worrying that he's giving into his rage too easily and by Luke's newly arrived estranged father (the late, magnificent Reg E. Cathey), a preacher who urges caution about the bulletproof golden calf the neighborhood has started to worship.

With creator Cheo Hodari Coker leading the way, Luke Cage never loses its thematic juice, as the second season only tightens that focus on identity and, more specifically, self-identification. The very first scene of the season culimates with Luke, wearing an African American College Alliance shirt, busting up a ring of drug dealers pushing a product emblazoned with a "Luke Cake" insignia and demanding of them, "What's my name?" But is he entirely Luke Cage, or do traces of falsely imprisoned, science-experiment guinea pig Carl Lucas remain? It's a question being asked of basically every character in the series. Bushmaster is originally John McIver, but his new name ties to his family grudge. Mariah is hoping to clean the Dillard name for good, because her original name, Stokes, is forever dirty. Misty flinches at being called "Mercedes" and Shades cringes when "Henan Alvarez" is mentioned. There are "My name is my name" nods to The Wire and at least one "I am who I am," a callback to the first season and all the way back to the Bible by way of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Personal reinvention and rebranding are the bedrock of the superhero genre, but Luke Cage wonders if it's possible to escape who we used to be, our blood, the legacy of our families and the way it does that is equal parts captivating and as subtle as a Luke Cage fist to the face.

Luke Cage also remains, for a show about a superhero boosted with abalone DNA or some nonsense, in remarkable conversation with the real world. References to The Graduate and The Warriors and Titanic are as carefully matched to the characters making them as the people reading Ta-Nehisi Coates and Walter Mosley or name-dropping Willie Horton or Adam Clayton Powell. It's not perfect, mind you. One misstep has Luke Cage literally trying out for the New York Jets and features cameos from coach Todd Bowles, plus ESPN personalities Jemele Hill and Michael Smith, and it's either awful or, more likely, self-consciously silly in a way as a show as self-consciously serious at Luke Cage can't sustain.

The series also continues to be driven by one of the best soundtracks on television, starting with the propulsive score by Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. There's an entire show that could be made about the talent booker for Harlem's Paradise, the club owned by Mariah and craved by Bushmaster, because it must be tough to get artists like KRS-One, Gary Clark Jr., Faith Evans & Jadakiss and Stephen Marley to topline a venue associated with organized crime and multiple recent murders, but there they are, often getting multi-song sets within episodes. The in-episode needle-drop song choices are pretty superb, though after a first season in which the lone defining action scene had Luke kicking butt backed by the Wu-Tang Clan, resorting to multiple Wu-driven fights this time around feels like pandering or desperation.

It's notable that Luke needs the Wu-Tang Clan for an adrenaline jolt. He doesn't fight interestingly or well. He just fights strong, and that gets boring in a hurry. Against the raw and animalistic Bushmaster, Luke Cage is a lumbering Frankenstein. Even when Danny Rand shows up in a late episode, bringing together the Heroes for Hire duo beloved in the comics, what should be the no-effort highlight of the season requires the Wu to cover for Luke's dullness, Finn Jones' lack of choreographic dexterity and the general inertness of their relationship. I spent much of the second Luke Cage season realizing how much of what I originally liked about Mike Colter in this role stemmed from his superior work on The Good Wife and from the friction Krysten Ritter brought out of him in Jessica Jones.

The new Luke Cage episodes are dominated by their villains. Shakir has brought instant screen presence to The Deuce and Quarry in recent years, and this is certainly his best and most extended opportunity to turn his coiled intensity into a fleshed-out character. His storyline brings with it a surplus of Jamaican patois that he delivers consistently and that the show tries to explore in some depth, though I'm sure not going to be the middle-aged white critic capable of telling you if it's done accurately or well. For a while, Bushmaster's need for vengeance, and his awareness of his self-destructive instincts in contrast to Luke's obliviousness, were enough to carry the season. The repetitiveness of the character's arc suggests he might have been better as a six-episode villain, not 13.

The same is true of Mariah, who benefits from an OK arc with Shades and is hindered by an awful storyline with newly introduced daughter Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis, who is not to blame). Despite her talk of legitimacy, Mariah spends most of the season unchained from the bounds of respectability, and that means Woodard gets to have a spectacular time swearing, talking trash and laughing at the sort of actorly restraint Hollywood has often demanded. More than a few times my notes just read, "That scene must have been a hoot for her." I wish they said that more frequently.

I think the third season that Luke Cage promises, in a finale that pushes a certain movie reference so aggressively it's exhausting, may have real potential to end this Marvel/Netflix streak of diminishing returns, but that's likely to be a long time — and the threat of a second Iron Fist season — away.

Cast: Mike Colter, Alfre Woodard, Simone Missick, Mustafa Shakir, Theo Rossi, Rosario Dawson, Reg E. Cathey, Gabrielle Dennis
Based on the character created by: Archie Goodwin, John Romita, Sr. and George Tuska
Developed for TV by: Cheo Hodari Coker
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)